The Tortilla Curtain
(1995) by American novelist T.C. Boyle is told from the disparate perspectives of two families in living inside the Topanga Canyon, in the suburbs of Los Angeles. It explores in detail the sufferings of illegal immigrants living and working in the United States, poverty and prejudice, and contrasts this against middleclass suburbanite values. Throughout the novel Mexican migrant workers experience discrimination and racial profiling at the hands of the white community in Arroyo Blanco (the well-to-do gated community where part of the novel is set). There are additional themes of the unpredictability of the natural world and the negative impact of human activity on the environment.
The novel opens with a car accident involving two of the main characters. Delaney Mossbacher, who fancies himself as a liberal, humanitarian environmentalist, hits illegal immigrant Candido Rincon with his car. Delaney admits that his first thought was for the car and his perfect driving record, when he goes see who he hit. In order not to involve his insurance company, Delaney gives Candido $20 and sends him on his way. Candido accepts this payment for the accident because he fears being deported even though he is quite badly injured in the ordeal. From this point on, the lives of the Mossbachers and Rincons are linked in that the doings of one family often, though unbeknownst to them, impact the other.
Delaney spends most of the first part of the novel in a growing state of resentment and anger predicated by his car being stolen while he was out on a nature hike. Throughout, various members of the Arroyo Blanco community try to persuade
him of the dangers posed by the growing numbers of illegal immigrants in the area. At first Delaney is resistant to the notion and sees it as an affront to his beliefs, especially when the Home Owners’ Association (his wife included) vote to build a wall around the community in order to keep Mexicans out. However, after a fire Candido accidentally caused threatens his home, Delaney too begins to blame the Mexicans for his misfortunes.
Meanwhile, Candido cannot work due to his injuries which, forces his pregnant 17 year-old wife, America, to go to the labour exchange and get a job cleaning Buddha statues. At the labour exchange, where mainly white employers find temporary employees for any variety of menial labour-intensive tasks, America meets another Mexican man in a poncho and immediately senses evil within him. This man and his friend eventually rape America, and they are often somewhere on the scene of crimes committed in Arroyo Blanco. For example, Delaney also walks past this man immediately before his car is stolen and blames him for litter in the path of his hike. Likewise, Jack Jardine Jr., the (white) son of one of the prominent residents of Arroyo Blanco is often the unacknowledged culprit of various vandalisms, including destroying Candido’s campsite, and defacing the wall built around the community. Despite this, the Mexican population en masse
is often blamed for crime and decreasing property values and Delaney’s wife uses her influence to have the labor exchange closed.
Once the exchange is closed, Candido can no longer find work to provide for America. They move to the city to try to make ends meet. Unfortunately, they are soon robbed. With all their savings are stolen, the couple must resort to finding food in a dumpster behind a fast food restaurant to avoid starving. America often wishes to return to Mexico, where there is a greater sense of community and people look out for one another. Candido feels shame about not being able to provide a living for his wife.
America gives birth to a daughter, Socorro, in a makeshift shelter behind the Mossbacher property, with only their cat and Candido to help her. After the birth America begins to fear that their daughter is blind as a result of venereal disease contracted during the rape, but they cannot afford totake her to a doctor.
After the fire and the wall around Arroyo Blanco has been defaced Delaney becomes obsessed with finding the culprits. He installs trip-wires and cameras in order to monitor the property, and becomes enraged when the footage shows Candido’s face. Even though Delaney also views footage of Jack Jardine Jr vandalizing the wall, he chooses to pursue Candido back to his shack with a gun. A landslide rips through the canyon and Delaney, Candido, America and Socorro are all swept into a river. The infant drowns, Candido helps Delaney to safety and the novel ends.
The portrayal of Delaney and Kyra Mossbacher is largely ironic and unsympathetic. Kyra is a real estate agent and Delaney writes for an environmentalist magazine and both are propelled by selfishness, and self-importance throughout the novel, despite Delaney’s democratic ideals. The New York Times
book review suggests that Boyle’s dividing half the attention of the plot onto such unlikable characters in a major flaw in an otherwise sympathetic depiction of the dangers facing migrant workers. The same reviewer also alludes to similarities between The Tortilla Curtain
and John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men
(1937) which tells the story of two displaced migrant workers during the Great Depression.